What social media posts tell us about the politics of the refugee crisis

Analysis of more than one million Twitter posts reveals the political maneuvering in portrayals of Syrian refugees, and the global pivot on the issue triggered by the image of Alan Kurdi in 2015. 

By: , /
October 28, 2016
A man reads tweets on his phone in front of a displayed Twitter logo. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/Illustration/File Photo

For several frenetic and heartrending weeks in the fall of 2015, Tima Kurdi felt as if the attention of the entire world was on her family. On Sept. 2, her brother and his family, like so many Syrians displaced by war, set off in rubber dingy from Turkey’s shores. The boat capsized and her brother’s wife and two children drowned. A photograph of three-year-old Alan’s body, slumped face down on the beach in a schoolboy’s red t-shirt and blue shorts, went viral online and reverberated around the globe.

Tima, who came to Canada from Syria in 1992, soon realized that this very personal tragedy gave her a chance to speak publicly about the tragedy that was afflicting millions of Syrians.

“Being in the spotlight of the media is not easy,” she said recently from her home near Vancouver. “I didn’t ask for it, it just happened… I wanted to share my people’s pain with the world. I wanted to explain that ‘those people’ are not different from you and me.”

Millions of people, from presidential candidates to members of ISIS to ordinary citizens, have used social media platforms to express their views on Syrian refugees. Recent research by one of us, Alexandra Siegel, reveals some important insights about how Syrian refugees are represented, and how different actors leverage the refugee crisis to promote their political and ideological views. This research paid particular attention to views of Syrian refugees among Arabic speakers, and to the politics unfolding of the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

Based on this research, we offer four preliminary observations, detailed below: Alan Kurdi’s drowning was a critical juncture in social media attention to the issue of Syrian refugees worldwide; there has been and continues to be a large well-spring of compassion for refugees in Arabic social media, with relatively little anger or xenophobia toward them; regional actors in the Middle East are seen to have a major responsibility for creating and addressing the refugee crisis; and a campaign mounted by ISIS to frame refugees as traitors found little resonance.

Evidence for these claims comes from several sources, including Siegel’s research on Arabic language tweets on Syrian refugees. (For her quantitative and qualitative analysis of 1.6 million tweets about Syrian refugees, collected at NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) Lab between February 2015 and July 2016, see here.)

1. Alan Kurdi’s death was a critical juncture in refugee portrayals worldwide.

We all know that the Alan Kurdi image went viral in September 2015. But social media analysis shows just how pivotal that image was in the public understandings and the politics of the refugee issue.

Online mentions of Syrian refugees peaked during the period when the image when viral. Google Trends data, which documents the relative popularity of Google searches for the Arabic term for “Syrian Refugees” since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, demonstrates the massive rise in attention to the issue at that time. The large spike that occurs in early September immediately following Alan Kurdi’s death is by far the biggest uptick in relative search volume throughout the five-year period.

Looking at Google Trends data on English language searches rather than Arabic reveals that while Alan Kurdi’s death drew a great deal of attention, the Paris attacks produced the greatest spike in English-language interest in Syrian refugees. Limiting English search terms to Canada, we also see a large spike both at Alan Kurdi’s death and following the Paris attacks, though interest in Canada remains higher and spikes again in December when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed a plane full of Syrian refugees, and in early January when Trudeau condemned attacks on Syrian refugees.

The following chart represents the weekly relative frequency of general Google searches for “Syrian Refugees” between October 2011 and October 2016.

Google trends 1
Data: Google Trends; Figure: Alexandra Siegel

Second, we observe that a number of actors used this global attention on the Syrian refugee issue to promote their own ethical and political views on how these refugees should be treated. This was clearly the case in Canada, where the plight of Syrian refugees briefly became central to the federal election campaign. The Liberal and New Democratic parties joined Alan Kurdi’s father in criticizing the governing Conservatives for rejecting his family’s application for asylum in Canada. But Alan Kurdi’s image had political ramifications in Europe as well.

2. Narratives of refugees as victims—not threats—dominate Arabic social media.

Given that refugees pose significant economic and security challenges in the Arab World, we found it somewhat surprising that we do not observe more threat-driven salience or anti-refugee sentiment in the Arab Twittersphere.

The vast majority of tweets about Syrian refugees in the Arab World portray them as victims in need of support. Indeed, qualitative coding of the most retweeted tweets in our dataset using the Crowdflower data enrichment platform suggests that 59 percent of the most popular tweets characterized refugees as victims or deserving of sympathy, while only 3 percent of these tweets portrayed refugees as threatening or undesirable. (Coders found that less than one percent of tweets identified refugees as traitors to their country or religion, three percent portrayed refugees in some other way, and 33 percent of tweets used the term “refugees,” but communicated no opinion about them.)

Quantitative analysis of the full dataset reveals a similar pattern. As the figure below demonstrates, a dramatic spike in interest on Twitter occurred in the aftermath of the drowning of Alan Kurdi. As a result, some of the most popular hashtags in our dataset highlight the plight of refugees making the dangerous trip to Europe, including: #Drowning_of_a_Syrian_Child, #Mediterranean_Sea_of_Death, and #200_Syrian_Muslims_Drowned_in_the_Sea.

The following graph shows the daily volume of Arabic tweets mentioning Syrian Refugees, taken from a dataset of tweets mentioning refugees in Arabic. It represents the daily volume of tweets mentioning Syria refugees between February 2015 and August 2016.

Kurdi death data
Data: NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) Lab; Figure: Alexandra Siegel

3. Regional actors are seen as primarily responsible for creating and addressing the refugee crisis.

The Assad regime and Arab governments were the actors most often held responsible for the refugee crisis, as found by the qualitative coding of popular tweets and more systematic quantitative analysis of actor name frequency. This finding upsets a common expectation that the United States, Israel, Iran, or other powerful foreign actors are particularly likely to be blamed for negative developments in the Middle East.

This graph shows the percentage of tweets that assigned blame to different internal and external actors in the Syria conflict, identified in a subset of the 1,000 most retweeted tweets in the dataset.

Kurdi data 2
Data: SMaPP NYU; Figure: Alexandra Siegel

Not only does the Assad regime bear the brunt of blame for the exodus and suffering of Syrians, the refugee crisis is often framed in terms of the anti-Shia and anti-Iranian rhetoric that is increasingly widespread in Gulf Sunni-dominated Arab Twittersphere. Indeed, sectarian framing may currently be displacing anti-American or anti-Israeli rhetoric on social media.

For example, one popular image in the dataset (below) shows Assad walking with Iran’s Khamenei past the drowned body of Alan Kurdi, implying that both are responsible for his death. The text of the tweet translates to “#Drowning_of_a_Syrian_Child #200_Syrian_Muslims_Drowned_in_the_Sea #Syria #Forever #Tweet_picture and tell the #Truth of this terrible world.”

However, Arab governments are also widely criticized for their failures to address the refugee crisis. For instance, in the wake of Alan Kurdi’s drowning, popular hashtags arose that accused Gulf States of doing too little to accommodate Syrian refugees: #Receiving_Syrian_Refugees_is_a_Gulf_Duty and the Saudi hashtag   #Receiving_Refugees_is_the_People’s_Demand. This criticism was powerful enough that Saudi officials took to social media to defend their actions. 

4. Attempting to combat the victim narrative, ISIS vilifies Syrian refugees online.

Shortly after Alan Kurdi’s image began to spread across the globe, ISIS began a viral Twitter campaign of its own, using the hashtag #Refugees_To_Where. The emergence of this hashtag was part of a broader media campaign launched by ISIS in this period, urging Muslims not to seek refuge in the West.

Tweets in our dataset suggest that the ISIS campaign had two key messages. The first was to scare people currently living in ISIS controlled territory sufficiently to convince them to stay put, using images of refugees drowning or being beaten by the European police and suffering other indignities. The second message was to brand refugees as religious traitors or apostates who are fleeing to the lands of the non-believers or infidels (“Dar al-Kufr) and to encourage them to stay in the caliphate or the land of Islam (“Dar al-Islam”). The following pro-ISIS tweet from our dataset illustrates this concept:  “What a contrast between the tears in his eye which God calls on him to migrate to the #Islamic_State and choosing to kill himself rather than migrate to the land of infidels #Refugees_to_where.”

What does this mean for politics around Syrian refugees?

Our analysis reveals several positive findings with respect to the politics of these issues, particularly in Arabic social media. Our data suggests that in the Arabic-speaking region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) there is a great deal of humanitarian concern for refugees, little fear-mongering toward them, and significant agreement that regional governments can and should take significant responsibility.

That finding is important because the MENA region is a key point of transit for refugee flows from major countries of origin, including Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea and Afghanistan. And it is of course home to the world’s largest state of origin for refugees: Syria. Neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have absorbed the vast majority of Syrian refugees. These developments have added tremendous strain to already fragile political and economic conditions. If public sentiment turns against refugees in that region, the situation would be dire.

But there are also reasons for concern. First, while Syrian refugees are often portrayed as suffering human beings in need of help, public attention spans are short. With the exception of the galvanizing image of Alan Kurdi, compassion has been fleeting. Refugee policy cannot depend on viral images and sentiment.

Second, while Syrian refugees were rarely characterized as threats in our dataset, that may change. For instance, Jordan recently closed its northeast border to Syrian refugees in response to a June 21 car bombing. Explaining the decision not to allow direct humanitarian access, a government spokesman said, “This is becoming a Daesh enclave on our borders and the security of Jordanian people supersedes any other concern.”

Further violence, economic hardship, and sectarian conflict could all lead MENA countries toward more of the xenophobic and closed border policies seen in some parts of Europe and North America. Mitigating the worst humanitarian crisis of our time is going to take a lot more than viral images and hashtag diplomacy.

Back in Vancouver, Tima Kurdi herself is well aware of both the limitations and the power of social media campaigns on Syrian refugees. Many people who learned her story expressed their sympathy and support, while others have harassed her or told her that she doesn’t belong in Canada and should go back where she came from.

“Once in a while, the attacks do get to me,” she said. “This is the world we live in. You have to take good and bad.

“But I will keep putting my voice out there. I won’t stop until my country and people have peace.”

An earlier version of this article was first published on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog. The full SMaPP Data Report on which this post is based is available here.

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